Paralinguistics (Paralanguage)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

woman shouting
"We speak with our vocal organs," said David Abercrombie, "but we converse with our entire bodies" (Elements of General Phonetics, 1968). Hero Images/Getty Images

Paralinguistics is the study of vocal (and sometimes non-vocal) signals beyond the basic verbal message or speech. Also known as vocalics.

Paralinguistics, says Shirley Weitz, "sets great store on how something is said, not on what is said" (Nonverbal Communication, 1974). 

Paralanguage includes accent, pitch, volume, speech rate, modulation, and fluency. Some researchers also include certain non-vocal phenomena under the heading of paralanguage: facial expressions, eye movements, hand gestures, and the like. "The boundaries of paralanguage," says Peter Matthews, "are (unavoidably) imprecise" (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2007).

Although paralinguistics was once described as the "neglected stepchild" in language studies, linguists and other researchers have recently demonstrated greater interest in the field.  


From Greek and Latin, "beside" + "language"

Examples and Observations

  • "We speak with our vocal organs, but we converse with our entire bodies. . . . Paralinguistic phenomena occur alongside spoken language, interact with it, and produce together with it a total system of communication. . . . The study of paralinguistic behavior is part of the study of conversation: the conversational use of spoken language cannot be properly understood unless paralinguistic elements are taken into account."
    (David Abercrombie, Elements of General Phonetics, 1968)
  • "Paralinguistics is commonly referred to as that which is left after subtracting the verbal content from speech. The simple cliche, language is what is said, paralanguage is how it is said, can be misleading because frequently how something is said determines the precise meaning of what is said."
    (Owen Hargie, Christine Saunders, and David Dickson, Social Skills in Interpersonal Communication, 3rd ed. Routledge, 1994)
  • Loudness in Different Cultures
    "A simple example of the adverse effects of paralinguistics is quoted in [Edward T.] Hall concerning the loudness with which one speaks (1976b). In Saudi Arabian cultures, in discussions among equals, the men attain a decibel level that would be considered aggressive, objectionable and obnoxious in the United States. Loudness connotes strength and sincerity among Arabs; a soft tone implies weakness and deviousness. Personal status also modulates voice tone. Lower classes lower their voices. Thus, if a Saudi Arab shows respect to an American he lowers his voice. Americans 'ask' people to talk more loudly by raising their own voices. The Arab then has his status confirmed and thus talks even more quietly. Both are misreading the cues!"
    (Colin Lago, Race, Culture And Counselling, 2nd ed. Open University Press, 2006)
  • Vocal and Nonvocal Phenomena
    "The more technical discussion of what is loosely described as tone of voice involves the recognition of a whole set of variations in the features of voice dynamics: loudness, tempo, pitch fluctuation, continuity, etc. . . .. It is a matter of everyday observation that a speaker will tend to speak more loudly and at an unusually high pitch when he is excited or angry (or, in certain situations, when he is merely simulating anger and thus, for whatever purpose, deliberately communicating false information). . . . Among the most obvious non-vocal phenomena classifiable as paralinguistic, and having a modulating, as well as punctuating, function is the nodding of the head (in certain cultures) with or without an accompanying utterance indicative of assent or agreement. . . . One general point that has been continually stressed in the literature is that both the vocal and non-vocal phenomena are to a considerable extent learned rather than instinctive and differ from language to language (or, perhaps one should say, from culture to culture)."
    (John Lyons, Semantics, Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press, 1977)
  • Detecting Sarcasm Based on Paralinguistic Cues
    "There was nothing very interesting in Katherine Rankin's study of sarcasm—at least, nothing worth your important time. All she did was use an M.R.I. to find the place in the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides. But then, you probably already knew it was in the right parahippocampal gyrus. . . .
    "Dr. Rankin, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, used an innovative test developed in 2002, the Awareness of Social Inference Test, or Tasit. It incorporates videotaped examples of exchanges in which a person’s words seem straightforward enough on paper, but are delivered in a sarcastic style so ridiculously obvious to the able-brained that they seem lifted from a sitcom.
    "'I was testing people’s ability to detect sarcasm based entirely on paralinguistic cues, the manner of expression,' Dr. Rankin said. . . .
    "To her surprise, . . . the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.
    "'The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context—it perceives social context as well,' Dr. Rankin said."
    (Dan Hurley, "The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care)." The New York Times, June 3, 2008)